Discomfort Zone

By Rachel Machacek
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 17, 2008

We love our routines: Wake up, brush teeth, update Facebook status about brushing teeth, work, go to the gym, update Facebook status about going to the gym. Can you sense a rut here?

It's easy to get stuck in the rotation of everyday life, but every now and then you have to thrust yourself out of it and dabble your tootsies in fresh waters. Just as working out pushes your body to be stronger, faster and healthier, trying something outside your comfort zone can provide a much-needed jolt to the brain. Your perspective dilates. Confidence puffs. Possibilities abound. And -- this is the biggie -- studies have found that trying new activities (especially when you're older) establishes new neural connections, a process that could eventually help counter the effects of Alzheimer's disease says Joseph Mancusi, a clinical psychologist and president of the Center for Organizational Excellence in Sterling. "The old theory that the brain is frozen and doesn't change after age 7 is really going downhill really rapidly," Mancusi says.

Here's another good reason to ditch your routine: Truly successful people explore beyond the couch-potato life and readily take on new challenges, Mancusi says. Which might be why the successful Washingtonians I approached about trying something new were game to explore uncharted territory. I got a ballerina, a chef, a drag queen/actor and a news anchor to agree to reach beyond their uber-accomplished cushion. Just for fun. Just to see what would happen.

Cinderella Takes Aim

"Pull!" Brianne Bland yells, and an orange clay target flies from the trees. Her bicep bulges as she squeezes the trigger on the 20-gauge semiautomatic Italian Beretta pressed against her shoulder. Orange shrapnel scatters. Bland, 30, has never held a gun before (she's a 10-year veteran of the Washington Ballet and has been dancing since she was a tot, for Pete's sake), but she blows the target to bits. And pieces. On her first try. She's a ringer.

"You're a great shot," Rhys Arthur, the chief instructor at Prince George's County Trap and Skeet Center in Glenn Dale, says with a high-five.

"Maybe I missed my calling," Bland responds with a giggle. She's one of those quick-to-laugh types. Behind her plastic goggles, she's exactly how you'd expect a fairy-tale princess to look. After all, she just wrapped a run of "Cinderella" the night before (she was the lead).

But don't be fooled by appearances. Bland is an adventurista. (When she was growing up, her parents exposed her and her sister to a bunch of activities, including whitewater rafting and hiking.) Still, even while toting a shotgun she retains a certain sweetness, with her hair tucked into pig tails and one of those expressive faces that could make the people in the nosebleeds weep.

Bland is also a perfectionist, and not just about ballet. "There's a part of me that always wants to be good at what I try," the Cleveland Park resident says. She's definitely good at shooting. Arthur's high-fives keep coming to reward her dead-eye aim.

But unless she's cast as the lead in "Annie Get Your Gun," this is probably Bland's first and last time bustin' caps in clay targets. "I was reassured that I do like to try new things, and it's nice that you've done something new and can share that experience with people," she says, "but I wouldn't do it again, honestly." And that's okay. The effort is what counts.

Watch Bland perform with the Washington Ballet in "Genius2." Oct. 22-26. Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. http://www.washingtonballet.org. $20-$120; single tickets go on sale Sept. 5.

Shoot a gun! Prince George's County Trap and Skeet Center, 10400 Good Luck Rd., Glenn Dale. 301-577-7178. http://www.pgtonline.org. $75 for an hour of one-on-one instruction, plus ammunition (about $7 a box) and targets (skeet and trap $5.50 for 25).

Recipe for a Masterpiece

Chef Barton Seaver may never have painted before, but after a quick briefing on technique in Dana Ellyn's acrylic painting class near Chinatown, he dives right in. Wielding brushes like a pro, he paints a sunflower from a photograph he brought with him. As he works, he talks about color saturation, self-determination and British colonialism (really), all the while holding a mini hair dryer over his jeans. (He got caught in a downpour on the scooter ride over.)


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